Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
On a certain level, you've got to admire the balls that goes into a major studio financing a film like Hollywoodland, which tears the lid off the showbiz moguls' manipulation of publicity in the 1950s as though the collapse of the studio system forever ended such spin. It's like Major League Baseball financing a tell-all about the cover-up of Babe Ruth's insatiable appetites, since players today clearly have no skeletons or syringes in their lockers.
If Hollywoodland had been about nothing more than demonstrating shock at the Dream Factory's calculated selling of artifice, it would have been fairly insufferable. But Hollywoodland has at least a little bit more on its mind than expos, and enough flashes of humanity to make up for its strangely stylized storytelling.
As structured by screenwriter Paul Bernbaum, Hollywoodland tells two parallel stories. In 1959, sleazy and recently divorced private eye Lou Simo (Adrien Brody) gets a tip that George Reeves' mother doesn't accept the official verdict that her son, TV's Superman, killed himself.
As Simo begins his investigation into the circumstances surrounding Reeves' death, the story flashes back to Reeves (Ben Affleck) as a struggling young actor who finds an unlikely benefactor in Toni (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Living as Toni's kept man in an arrangement tacitly accepted by Eddie, Reeves eventually gets his big break as Superman but the role proves to be, at best, a mixed blessing.
Bernbaum and frequent Sopranos director Allen Coulter spend perhaps too much time covering familiar ground about the schism between perceptions of fame and behind-the-scenes reality. But on a moment-to-moment basis, it still manages to be fairly effective.
There are some individually compelling scenes Reeves trying to embrace his status as kiddie idol by posing in a restaurant window for a horde of screaming Boy Scouts; a kid with a real gun wanting to test "Superman's" powers at a publicity event that keep things brisk.
And then there's the strange manner in which Affleck and Lane pitch their performances, as though they were actually in a 1950s movie instead of in a movie about 1950s movies. Their tight-jawed patter is almost perversely compelling. Either it's an intriguing meta-commentary on lives lived perpetually putting on a show, or it's just plain goofy.
Hollywoodland proves even more compelling where it becomes a case study in the need for self-respect, as both Simo and Reeves struggle to reconcile what they do for money with the way they want to think of themselves or to have others think of them. As Simo works through possible architects of Reeves' death Toni, Eddie, Reeves' most recent fiance (Robin Tunney) he also considers the threat to Reeves' psyche of an inability to create a career he could be proud of.
Sure, that notion ties the two ends of the story together a touch too neatly. And, yes, there's weird autobiographical subtext when both the writer and the director both television stalwarts seeing their names on a movie screen for the first time create a story where moving from television to movies is equated with achieving artistic integrity. But that attraction/repulsion dynamic might actually be what brings Hollywoodland's many pieces together into something that works a funky, messy look at an industry full of people who hate themselves while wanting so badly for us to love them.